Raif Badawi, the Saudi State and the Decline of Intellect in the Islamic World…

Posted: January 23, 2015 in (All Things) CULTURE, (Politics) CURRENT AFFAIRS
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The plight of blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia has garnered international attention, particularly in the context of the freedom of expression theme that became especially prevalent in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo  cartoon.
Badawi is facing a 10-year jail sentence (and I can hardly believe I’m having to say this in the 21st century, but 1,000 lashes in public) for the offense of expressing liberal, progressive ideas on his blog and therefore challenging the status quo within the oppressive kingdom.

He has been in prison already since 2012, with his Free Saudi Liberals blog put out of operation by the state. His case puts this whole business of blogging into some perspective; the simple freedoms we (currently) have in our liberal societies aren’t a universal privilege, not even the liberty of being able to express one’s thoughts freely in a blog. The Guardian recently published some translated extracts from Badawi’s blog which though entirely non-aggressive in nature, does (somewhat gently) question the iron-fist rule of the Saudi state and certainly questions the role of religion in affairs of state. What Badawi’s writings strongly explore is the diminishing of independent or progressive thinking in the modern Islamic world, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

“As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics,” Badawi writes. “I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.”

Saudi Arabia’s oppression of its population is regarded by many as the most severe and unwavering in the Arab world; far more so than that of other dictatorships that the Saudi state itself has previously condemned and even demanded action against, such as that of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Bashar Assad in Syria or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Despite that, the Saudis have remained permanent, unquestioned allies, even patrons, of the UK, the US and several other democratic powers. Compared to Saudi Arabia, Gaddafi’s Libya could be considered positively progressive, with its religious inclusivity, non-sectarianism and its efforts to further the status of women within the society.

Purple Canvas Photography - Toronto - Raif

Badawi’s concern about the migration of “Arab thinkers” is particularly resonant, as Islam at the scholarly and literary level is perceived to be a culture in an age of stagnation, where more open dialogue and debate is repressed and where individuals who stray from the currently prevailing dogmas are not only ostracized but threatened and often killed. This isn’t an uncommon event in, say, Pakistan, where blasphemy laws are in operation, but also where ordinary citizens will take it into their own hands to enact vengeance on anyone seen to be ‘blaspheming’ against the religion, the Koran or the Prophet. In most cases that ‘blasphemy’ isn’t actual blasphemy anyway, but merely people questioning the currently prevailing dogmatic interpretations of Islamic law.

The near-fatal shooting of another blogger, the Pakistani teenager (and now Nobel Prize winner) Malala Yousafsai, was a disturbing demonstration of this violent brand of intolerance that exists in some of the Muslim world; in Malala’s case, she wasn’t ‘blaspheming’ against the religion, but simply speaking in favour of education for girls. Somewhere like Pakistan, the threat is from out-of-control elements of the community, often extremists taking law into their own hands in a country that has descended repeatedly towards lawlessness; while in Saudi Arabia there is no lawlessness or chaos of any kind – just the state and the will of the state.

I keep using the term ‘currently prevailing’ dogmas because there is a widespread misunderstanding among many people that this has always been the nature or condition of Islamic societies; but this hasn’t always been the case. At different times in its history, the Islamic world has had other prevailing views or interpretations. If we go back to the earlier Islamic eras, in fact, the Muslim world was a culture of relative enlightenment, progressive thinking, science, medicine  and philosophy at a time when Christian Europe was engaged in violent sectarianism, infighting, wars, Inquisitions, mass executions, persecution of minorities and of course incredibly bloody Crusades.

A key feature of the ‘Fatimid era‘ for example, which originated in Syria in the 7th century, was the freedom afforded to the people and liberties given to mind and reason. People were free to believe whatever they liked provided they did not infringe upon others’ rights.

The Fatimids reserved separate pulpits  for different Islamic sects and scholars expressed their ideas in whatever manner they wished. In that era patronage was given to scholars of varied origins who were invited from various places and financially supported, even when their ideas contradicted the prevailing belief system. This was at a time, remember, when the 16th century Renaissance in Europe was still many centuries away yet. As Sasha Brookner notes in an article for The Huffington Post, “Between the ninth and 13th centuries, the libraries in Baghdad, Damascus, Timbuktu, Cordoba and Cairo contained more books, manuscripts and literature than in the entire Greek world.”

Sadly the view upheld by the Abbasids that “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr” is one that has no place in the Saudi state’s contemporary religious dogmatism that has successfully penetrated deep into much of the Muslim world. This vague-in-length ‘golden era’ of Islamic culture is regarded to have been brought to an end by the Crusades launched from Christian Europe, which put the medieval Muslim world under greater pressure to defend itself, and later also by the aggression of Gengis Khan and the Mongols from further East. But even beyond those eras, the Islamic world broadly maintained some degree of progressive thinking, liberty of interpretation and discourse, with a wide variety of different forms and schools of Islamic thought able to flourish in places like Egypt, Syria and Iraq, for example.

Syria - Travel - Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo

The diminishing of all of this and the rise to dominance of the most intolerant, puritanical form of Islamic thought has been a relatively recent phenomenon. And its chief architect has been Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabist-centered ideology that has spread out across different parts of the Muslim world, manifesting as ‘Salafism’, ‘Takfiri’ movements and most insidiously infecting scores of mainstream Sunni Islamic thought and ideology. This was accomplished through immense Saudi wealth and its funding of Wahhabi-derived literature and ‘educational’ material that has been disseminated out across the world for decades now.

Long gone are the days when Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Córdoba were renowned world capitals of culture, learning and intellect.

A key point in time where some manner of renaissance or restoration of those past cultural peaks might’ve occurred  was after the First World War and the freeing of the Arab world from the Ottoman Turkish Empire; but instead the Middle East was carved up into Colonial ‘spheres of influence’, sectarian divisions formed and Saudi Arabia was established by Western powers as the heartland of the Islamic world, which would eventually lead to the diminishing of the plurality and liberty of interpretation that had once existed.

This harsh, regressive school of Islamic thought is the ideological root of present-day radicalization on a mass scale (albeit, along with other factors such as economic conditions or foreign military impositions or encroachments). And its cardinal architects remain under the permanent protection of the US, UK and several other Western governments, while all of its enemies and all those Muslim countries that don’t suscribe to the Saudis’ Wahhabi-inspired school of thought – Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya, pre-2003 Iraq, Iran and Lebanon for example – are conveniently hounded or picked apart by international campaigns and then  turned into  ‘failed states’ that can be freshly *made susceptible* to the influx of that intolerant ideology. The extremist ideologies had no space to flourish in Gaddafi’s Libya. but are now a spiraling, defining feature  of post-‘Revolution’ Libya. In both Iraq and Syria the precise same point can be made – that societies that had no culture of religious extremism were transformed, via bloody destabilisation, into societies suddenly flooded with foreign-funded extremist agitators and ideologies.

All of these countries I just mentioned have been under either direct military assault or propaganda-based attack by the US and the West for decades, while,  curiously, Saudi Arabia is never even criticised, let alone acted against, by democratic Western governments for its totalitarian oppression and human rights abuses. Neither for that matter are Saudi sister-states like Qatar or Bahrain.

At the same time as the Arab Spring revolutions were going on in Egypt and Tunisia, praised and championed by Western democracies, people in Bahrain  tried to do the same, standing up to their oppressive royal rulers and campaigning, via non-violent means, for more rights and liberties; the Bahraini citizens were harshly cracked down on by the Bahraini state and with full Saudi approval. There was no expression of solidarity or support for the citizens of Bahrain from the Western governments during their hour of need; yet when very small initial protests were hijacked by terrorist infiltrators and agent-provocateurs in Libya and Syria both Western governments and the corporate media went into overdrive, expressing their support for ‘the people’ and calling for both Gaddafi and Assad to stand down.

Why? Simple: because none of this was ever about liberty, democracy or the interests of the populations, but about alliances, friendships, and corporate and Geo-political agendas. No one dares speak against the Saudi state or its off-shoot states like Bahrain; but the same governments and powers will go out of their way to engage in operations designed to bring down Saudi Arabia’s (and Israel’s) opponents in the region, which is essentially what has been happening in the last several years. This is one of the central aspects of the situation that needs to be widely understood in order to see that this ‘War on Terror’ that has characterised the last fifteen years or so of international relations is mostly a sham; a vast, staged smokescreen acted out in order to service a number of other agendas, albeit with a number of very real terrorists involved.

What’s perverse is that the same silencing of expression or dissent that the Saudi state maintains within its kingdom and exercises against free-thinking bloggers like Rafi Badawi is now actually echoed beyond Saudi Arabia too; specifically in the silence that is maintained in the mainstream media when it comes to any meaningful criticism of the Saudi state.

People often talk about the lack of criticism of Israel  in corporate media, particularly in America; but this policy appears to be even more the case when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Which places us in a situation where the country that has done the most to fund, sponsor and inspire extremism and terrorism in the Islamic world is also the country that no government or corporate interest intends to do or even say anything about. This isn’t necessarily an attack on King Abdullah or any specific Saudi King or royal at any given time; there are some who will praise King Abdullah for some of his reforms and (relatively minor) gestures towards some limited modernization of Saudi society. The problem is bigger and deeper-rooted than any individual figurehead or policy-maker, but resides with the religious clerics and powers that have been nursed within the bosom of the Saudi state for decades.


In terms of the Saudi state, it doesn’t suit the totalitarian regime to allow any plurality of beliefs or opinions to exist in its society; once ideas, intellectual exchanges or reinterpretations of the religion are allowed any space, the prevailing dogmas of the puritanical state religion won’t be able to keep its grip on the minds of the population. The last thing in the world the Saudis want is for Saudi Arabia to become a pluralistic, multi-faith society like Syria is (or at least like Syria *was* prior to the country’s infiltration by foreign terrorism that was funded in large part from within  Saudi Arabia). Ultimately the ideological leaders of the Saudi state religion intend for the rest of the Islamic world to be taken over by the same ideology; that agenda is being serviced right now across the Middle East, down into Africa and penetrating even into radical parts of the Muslim communities in the West. It was serviced by the invasion of Iraq, by the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, by the war in Syria, the War on Terror itself and several other engineered or hijacked world events.

Meanwhile Raif Badawi isn’t just a symbol of the oppression within Saudi Arabia, but he is a symbol for the Islamic world itself; a brave voice trying to create or restore an open dialogue and examination to a society that has radically lost its ability to have conversations or to tolerate alternative interpretations. “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear,” he writes, in reference to the Wahhabi-inspired Saudi state religion. On the matter of progressive, secular ideas and the Saudi state’s fear of such thinking as a threat to their absolute control, he says “They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet.”

Badawi received his first public flogging on January 9th; the next flogging has been postponed due to Badawi being judged unfit medically for the moment.

Amnesty International UK  is petitioning the Saudi government to overturn Raif’s conviction and release him; you can add your voice to their petition by using this link and adding your name.


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